Songshan International Airport, the gateway for the city of Taipei. Although it’s only a 15-minute walk from my house, I knew nothing about its history. To me, it was merely a door through which I could quickly leave and enter Taipei. The connection between the airport and me, like for most Taipei residents, was departure, takeoff, landing, and arrivals. That is, until I traced my own family lineage, and unearthed a historic epic drama that began right here at Songshan International Airport.
I am a native Taipei resident, born in Beitou (北投). It was a part of the Yangmingshan Special District, where Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek lived during his reign of martial law. I grew up with nature in the Guandu (關渡) plains. When I was six years old, I moved to Minsheng Community (民生社區) in the eastern part of Taipei with my parents. It is the very first American-style subdivision community in Taipei, designed and built with the US foreign aid.
There were many foreign banks and diplomatic offices in this area, as well as those international brands that opened their first branches in Taiwan here to test the waters, like McDonalds, IKEA, The Body Shop, and so on. The community is also a popular location for shooting movies and TV dramas, due to its beautiful landscape. For example, Turn Left, Turn Right, the movie adapted from the work of Taiwanese illustrator Jimmy starring Kaneshiro Takeshi, was shot here. With interwoven parks and alleyways, this area is home to unique cafés, thoughtful restaurants, design workshops and prestigious schools. Furthermore, at the end of Dunhua North Road’s beautiful camphor tree-lined boulevard, which runs alongside Minsheng Community, is the unique city airport — Songshan International Airport.
In Taipei, there are two streets with unusual names: one is the well-known Ketagalan Boulevard, which is in front of the Office of the President; the other, lesser known one, is Tayou Road (塔悠路), located at the end of Minsheng East Road. Different from the streets that were named either after places in the Chinese mainland by the Nationalist government after retreating to Taiwan, or by the Japanese colonial government, the names of these two streets are so unique, that those who hear them for the first time thought the names are translated from foreign languages.
It is not until the revival of indigenous Austronesian culture and the rediscovery of Taiwan Plains Aborigines in recent years, that we now know Japanese anthropologists grouped the Taiwan Plains Aboriginal people who lived in the Taipei Basin into the Ketagalan nation. Then what about “Tayou?” What’s the connection between Taipei and the name of the street alongside an embankment in the Songshan area? And what does it have to do with Songshan International Airport?
My maternal uncle is the best storyteller in the family. Every time I accompany my mother to visit her maiden home on the second day of the Lunar New Year, I get the chance to hear poignant love stories of their paternal grandmother (my great-grandmother).
In my childhood memories, my long-lived and healthy great-grandmother was a woman of solemnity, but also boldness and generosity. Her eyes revealed wisdom and perseverance. Over 90 and being the head of a five-generation family, she was so full of vigor and alertness that she was completely at home in banquets and parties. She was even able to climb up and plant a vegetable garden on a hilltop.
She married twice in her lifetime. The first husband was a young lord of the prominent Beitou Chen family, which originated from Quanzhou (泉州) in Fujian province, China. My great-grandmother married him when she was only 16. He was a loving father but not a good husband. He died young, and my great-grandmother had to live and raise three children all by herself in her early twenties. Despite the prominence of the Chen family, they did not take my great-grandmother in. She stretched herself to provide for the family by making and selling straw sandals.
There was a young businessman next door who came from Fuzhou (福州). Couldn’t bear to see my great-grandmother and her children living in misery, he often helped them even when he had nothing more than simple gruel to eat himself. Later, they fell in love and lived together for most of their lives. However, in 1950 he went back to Fuzhou to visit his family, but never returned home due to the political standoff in the Taiwan Strait.
My great-grandmother waited. It was not until martial law was lifted in 1987 that the news of her husband’s death had been delivered by relatives in China. She was desperate and refused to eat. Three weeks later on the second day of the Lunar New Year, she passed away with children surrounding her and went after the man she had been waiting for a lifetime.
According to my uncle’s memories, great-grandmother was the only girl in her maiden home. She was very close with her brothers who lived at the top of the mountains in Beitou. During wartime, she always went to her brothers’ home to bring some vegetables back down the hills to feed the hungry children waiting at home. My uncle told us that Beitou residents called those people that lived on the mountains “mountaintop people.” My great-grandmother’s brothers who lived there all strangely looked like aborigines. (The most famous place on the mountain top now would probably be the Kuohua Golf Course.)
I was frequently asked if I was a half-breed when I was little. People would mistake some people for aborigines if my maternal aunts, uncles and cousins stood in a row. But everyone in Beitou knew that the Chen family is a prominent family from Quanzhou in China. The identity of this family, without a doubt, is Minnan (Hoklo). Every time my maternal uncle talks about the relatives living in the mountaintop in Beitou, people treat his stories just as legends. These family legends accompanied me as I grew up, but I never really thought much into them.
One day, I was chatting online with an American friend who has lived in Taipei for more than ten years. He knows the city much better than most of the locals. That day, he was telling me about an amazing bicycle ride along the Keelung River.
“Where’s the Keelung River?”
“What? You don’t know where the Keelung River is? It’s right next to your home!”
At that moment, I was embarrassed that I knew nothing about the place where I grew up. During the martial law period under the Chinese Nationalist government, I memorized the history and geography of the Chinese mainland, yet I have no idea that there is a river right behind my home!
In 2008, I picked up a map of Taipei and pretended to be a tourist myself and re-explored in detail the city where I grew up. While exploring, I suddenly realized that the mile-long dike near my home is the Keelung River my American friend was talking about, And that Songshan International Airport is actually right by the river!
While rediscovering Taipei, I also had a meal with my university professor. It should have been a lunch of catching up over sashimi. But then he asked me, “just how ‘savage’[i] is your family?” I was even more ashamed that I had no idea what he’s talking about. That fateful meeting led to down a path of uncovering my family’s indigenous roots.
Under the advice of my teacher, I decided to start from the detailed household registration documents of the Japanese period. There was no accurate record of residences during Qing rule; it was until Japan took over Taiwan from the Qing Empire in 1895 under the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the First Sino-Japanese War, that a modern general household survey was conducted. Yet the survey wasn’t conducted right away; the Japanese took nearly eight years to establish a police system first and then launched the household survey officially in about 1902.
These documents from the Japanese period are done in the consistently meticulous manner associated with the Japanese. They contain detailed information such as name, ethnicity, occupation, marital status, residence, license of smoking opium, foot binding, and vaccinating for what kind of diseases. These documents of household registration serve as the perfect primary data for my research.
The household survey on Taiwan’s ethnic groups categorized “ethnicity” as follows:
Fu (福): Minnan
Guang (廣): Hakka
Assimilated (熟, or literally “ripe, or mature”): Taiwan Plains Indigenous
Unassimilated (生, or literally “raw, or unripe”): Other Taiwan Indigenous
(Japanese carried over the Qing period categorization of “ripe” tribes and “unripe” tribes depending on the degree of assimilation into Qing or Japanese society.)
To find out whether my family is indeed of indigenous origin, I had to find the mark of “ripe” in the ethnic column of my lineal household registration document. Because the household register data hasn’t been computerized in Taiwan at the time I started investigating, I had no choice but to visit each Household Registration Office in the greater Taipei area. I decide to begin with the great-grandmother in my family legends; in other words, my mother’s father’s mother.
Thanks to the reforms carried out by Mayor Chen Shui-bian of Taipei’s civil service system, I sat in front of the consultation counter at the Beitou Household Registration Office just few minutes after I took an order number. With the kind help of the administrator, the sealed documents of my great-grandmother were brought to light.
However, I soon faced unexpected difficulties when I was probing. Every member of my grandfather’s family was marked as “Fu” in the ethnic column. Furthermore, it was not until I saw the documents that I discovered my great-grandmother lived in Tamsui when she was little. Tamsui is on the other side of the Beitou mountains, and was one of the earliest international ports opened to foreign trade. Did her family become sinicized too early and gave up their identity as indigenous people?
The administrator of the Beitou Household Registration Office did all his best to search for any useful information. But I couldn’t give up and stop here. Next, I went to the Household Registration Office in Tamsui (淡水), hoping to find out something about even earlier registration documents.
It was a senior lady who assisted me in the Tamsui Household Registration Office. Interesting enough, when she heard that I asked for my household registration documents, she said sincerely, “If you are here for a family property dispute, you’re better off not dig too deep.” It was from her words that I realized people look into household registration documents to fight over the inheritance. I explained carefully that I was here for investigating my lineage because I wanted to find out whether I am a “ripe” or “unripe” “savage,” that I had to ask her to go to storehouse and look for the documents. My sincere explanation seemed to put this kind lady at ease, and she finally turned around and headed to storehouse.
Nevertheless, her efforts were in vain. According to the household registration documents of my great-grandparents, it marked “Fu” in the ethnic column as far as to 1860s. It was a dead end.
The afterglow in the Tamsui sunset was so beautiful. Holding the documents in my arms, I left the Household Registration Office disappointed. That night, I couldn’t sleep well. Are there other possibilities?
My maternal uncle, who has facial features of indigenous peoples, came to my mind. If he did not get those features from the mother of my grandfather, what about the mother of my grandmother?
From the documents I retrieved from the Beitou Household Registration Office, I confirmed that the maternal home of my grandmother is in Songshan. In the next morning, I rushed to the place where my grandmother registered, the Songshan Household Registration Office. Just like the day before, I took an order number and waited nervously and excitedly for my turn to come.
According to the Songshan Household Registration Office’s documents, my grandmother was adopted when she was only eight-months old, just like most of the females in early 1900s Taiwan. Surprisingly, though my grandmother was sent away at such a young age, the names of her birth parents were recorded in detail. I kept following the clues I tracked down, and on the household registration documents of her birth mother I found “ripe” written in the ethnic column!
From there, I kept digging and discovered that my grandmother’s birth family now lives in the Tayou neighborhood, right by the Keelung River in Songshan. All the family members are marked as assimilated.
There was a poem during Qing rule called An Ode to the Ripe Tribes:
The Unripe Tribes are feared as tigers, but the Ripe Tribes are treated like the dirt; trembling before the fierce and trampling the weak, just because the people lack the wisdom of ages.
A ripe tribesman obeys the law and works the field, but the day comes when a Chinese sets his sights on the tribesman’s land; he takes away the fields and the tribesman starves, regretting becoming “ripe.”
The tribesman hears of an official in the city and treks to the palace and kowtows before him in appeal; but his words are as the chirping of quails, and the official cannot understand at all.
His sad tales not finished, the official loses patience; the official orders the tribesman be beaten. The tribesman listens to the verdict with head lowered: “Stupid savage! Do as I say, give your fields to the Chinese man, who is your brother in every way!”
What a shame! The unripe tribesmen are forced to kill, and the ripe tribesmen are bullied. Would our Chinese officials listen to these voices?
It was a society where the assimilated indigenous peoples suffered long-term and severe discrimination. At a time when indigenous peoples did everything they could to hide their identity, what made this family by the riverside of eastern Taipei determined to keep their pride as Taiwan Plains Austronesians? And which nation did they belong to?
Looking at these documents, written by brushstroke on Japanese official paper of especially tough material, I felt my heart stirring. I have embarked on a pilgrimage back in time, to my ancestral lands, and those memories from several centuries ago are beginning to come out of the dust, into the light.
(Feature photo of household registration document showing “ripe” in the ethnic column, by Rosey Peng)
[i] Here we translate fan (番) as “savage,” since fan was a term used to denote uncivilized foreign peoples in Chinese. The Japanese also categorized Taiwanese indigenous peoples as fan, and the word is now somewhat of a racist term.
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